Monday, September 30, 2013

The Pirate Party

You have probably, like me, googled your books and felt slightly sick as you realised how easy it was to download pirated copies. Peter James's publisher reckons that these account for about 25% of the number read.

You've probably seen, too, the self-justification from those who reply, with some savagery, to author's complaints about the practice. My own favourite was the person who said, 'I wanted to read the book and I didn't have the money so what else was I to do?' Did he, I wonder, apply the same principle when he went to his local supermarket – and if so, how did that go down as an excuse when he was arrested?

Amelia Andersdotter
However, there is now a new kid on the block and she's ready to kick sand in our faces – the youngest member of the European Parliament, Amelia Andersdotter. She represents Sweden's Pirate Party and believes that there should be no barriers put in the way of illegal downloads.

Her argument? 'Using culture as a common reference point in social interaction is so normal and so human that I think that not allowing it in law does not make any sense at all.' She complains that the website linked to the party, the file-sharing Pirate Bay, has had to move around the globe in its attempts not to be held to account. 'They are being persecuted and they are living in legal uncertainty'.

Curiously enough, she seems to skirt over the question of how they can afford to move themselves all over the world; could it be that they are immoral enough to charge for giving access to these cultural common references? Unless their services are entirely free, they are just doing what, if carried out in a back street shop, would be called fencing stolen goods.

Her fire is mainly directed at musicians and film-makers who, she says, make quite enough money anyway, but the stated aim of her organisation – which, not surprisingly, has a lot of support from people who want something for nothing – is to abolish the copyright law.

It would be reassuring to think that we had a government to protect our legal rights but in Britain at the moment we certainly do not. Schools are just about to be given greatly extended rights over original material, a serious blow to the income of writers in these fields – which of course, according to Ms Andersdotter, is only right since currently people 'aren't having freedom to interact with the cultural material they want.'

We all write because we want to write, because we have a story we want to tell.  But as a statement from a music rights organisation said,
'If creators cannot earn from what they create, it is a hobby and not a business,' – a hobby that far too many of us would not have the income to allow us the leisure to pursue. 

And with far fewer books and far less music, where would Ms Andersdotter and her pirate friends find the 'cultural references' which are so important to the public weal as to justify theft?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Truth Be Told

Last evening I attended a reading at UAlbany by Gilbert King, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction for his book Devil in the Grove.

The book is the story of a rape accusation in Florida in 1949. Thurgood Marshall, later a Supreme Court justice, spearheaded the effort to save the black men who were falsely accused and in danger of losing their lives, either at the hands of the sheriff who ruled the county or the jury that sentenced them to death. Mr. King was on a panel at Bouchercon. His book is being made into a movie.

The brief conversation I had with Mr. King last evening got me thinking about the true crime cases that have had an impact on popular culture, inspiring books, films, documentaries, and continued discussion and debate. Many of these cases are about "murder most foul" – cunning, sensational, and/or shocking. Sometimes these are unsolved crimes with a list of suspects and/or an assumed culprit. Many of  these cases are remembered as a "crime of the century" because of the public interest, media coverage, and enduring memory of the case in American culture. These are the cases that are often described as "symbolic cases" because of what they reveal about American society. But some cases – such as the story Mr. King recounts – are so intense that they do not offer the opportunity that many true crimes buffs value to engage in intense scrutiny of the events but from a safe distance. Some true crime cases require emotional involvement and soul-searching because they speak to who we have been, are, and might become as a society.

As you might suspect from the fact that I have featured Mr. King's book in my post, I recommend it. Mr. King narrative style is riveting and the story he tells is important.

There are many other true crime cases, many of less intensity and perhaps less importance in the larger scheme of things. We all know the Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray ("Double Indemnity") murder case and the Clutter family murder case that was the basis for Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Here are a few other cases that might have escaped your attention (with one or more of the books about the case):

  1. Martinsville Seven (The Martinsville Seven: Race, Crime, and Capital Punishment by Eric W. Rise)
  2. Gary Gilmore (The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer)
  3. Leopold and Loeb Compulsion by Meyer Levin; For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz)
  4. Grace Brown and Chester Gillette (Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon; An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser)
  5. Harry Thaw-Stanford White (American Eve by Paula Uruburu)
  6. Mary Rogers (The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower)

Other personal favorites that you would add to the list?

Thursday, September 26, 2013


I’ve just finished the first draft of my new book, Hell With the Lid Blown Off. Thank goodness. I changed the end of this one at least three times. The same person committed the murder in all three versions, but what happened to the murderer changed radically from End # 1 to End # 3. The great irony of this is that I’m not at all sure my editor is going to like what I finally did, because it’s unusual. I like it. But anyone who has written several novels will understand what I mean when I say that after a while, you do like to mix it up and try something different for a change. Oh, well, we shall see.

I’ve complained and complained about how difficult writing this book was for me, mainly because I kept being interrupted by life situations that had to be taken care of RIGHT NOW, and which would take me away from the story for days, sometimes. You know how difficult it is to get back into the flow when you’ve been away from your WIP for even one day, much less several days.

Once the book is published, I’ll be spilling my life blood on the altar of publicity, because as Barbara so eloquently illustrated in yesterday’s blog, that’s what you have to do these days. I’m pretty good at public speaking. I don’t mind it. In fact I rather enjoy it. But I don’t put myself out there nearly as much as I could or as I probably should.

When I don't have to worry about PR, when I do have time...days stretching out before me with nothing that must be done but write, oh, how I love that. In fact, I don’t even have to be writing to enjoy a day of nothing. I can diddle around and/or stare happily into space all by myself for hours on end. Because, like many an author, I am an introvert.

I heard David Morrell, author of First Blood and Murder as a Fine Art, among many others, describe himself as an introvert, and explain that being an introvert doesn’t mean you’re shy. It means that you are energized by being alone and being around other people drains you. An extrovert may become bored by a day without a lot of activity, but to an introvert, quiet time is a necessity.

A few months ago I read an article on Huffpost by Carolyn Gregoire on just this topic. Gregoire listed some twenty-three indications of introversion, many of which fit my personality type. But a few of them really hit home.

For instance, she points out that to an introvert, giving a talk in front of 500 people is less stressful than having to mingle with those people afterwards.
     Amen, sister. In fact, I’ve wondered if I could have been a successful actress. When one is “on stage”, one is in charge of the situation. When one is trying to make small talk in a crowd, there is no telling what the heck you’re going to have to come up with. It’s exhausting.

An introvert, Carolyn says, has a constantly running inner monologue.
     No kidding. It’s crazy time in here.

Carolyn notes that if you are an introvert, you might very well be a writer.
     And if you’re a writer, you’d darn well better have at least some introvert in you. Sadly, if you want to be a successful promoter, you’re going to have to try and cultivate your inner extrovert, as well.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A new age – Words and Music

Nowadays everyone wants something for free. Or at least as cheap as possible. Once information and entertainment found its way onto the internet, lots of people searched for ways to download it for free. It's already out there, why should I have to pay for it? seemed to be the attitude. It doesn't cost the musician or the author or the movie producer anything extra for my copy. There are no printing costs, paper costs, theatre rental fees, etc.

Free download sites have proliferated, many of them offshore and beyond the reach of any copyright or licensing laws. Even a cursory Google search uncovers dozens of places where you can download anything from songs to films and TV shows to ebooks (including mine) for free. The fact that the original creator of the material might need to pay the mortgage or eat doesn't seem to enter their thoughts. Creators are struggling with ways to stem the tide (likely a futile endeavour) and to find alternative funding models to keep themselves afloat. Newspapers, bleeding red ink, have tried to erect firewalls on their digital content, at the risk of pricing themselves into extinction. Digital ad revenue have become big business. Musicians are hitting the concert circuit, hoping the sale of tickets and signed CDs will make up for the thousands of dollars lost on free song downloads.

Authors are offering their wares for 99 cents, and even publishers are discounting select titles in the hope of attracting readers who will then pay a fair price for another work by the same author. Cyberspace is awash in books, all competing for readership. In many ways, one could argue this era is like Dickens' Tale of Two Cities. The best of times and the worst of times. At no time has it been easier for writers to get their work out there, and at no time has there been more selection for readers. But at no time has it been harder for individual works to be noticed and at no time has it been harder for readers to wade through the sheer volume in search of that gem worth reading. The slush piles of dozens of publishers and agents are now on the web for the readers' perusal – the good, the bad and the just plain awful.

A couple of years ago I attended a panel of publishing luminaries at a book conference. They likened the state of the book business to that music industry a few years earlier. Basically the message seemed to be that you can't fight progress and if authors and books were going to survive, they would have to find a way to adapt to the new digital reality. That meant cheap downloads by the thousands, crowd funding, and developing a way to entertain. Musicians make money with performances and CD sales, so authors, the most introverted and limelight-shy of all artists, had better learn a new skill set.

I left that panel feeling furious and frustrated. Music, like theatre, is a performance medium. An evening of songs is an evening of engagement and contagious enthusiasm. But reading is a private experience, an interaction between the author's and the readers' imagination. You read curled up in a comfy chair with your drink of choice at your elbow. The sheer pleasure is in the solitary journey, not shared with a hundred or so people in a concert hall. Even worse than that, most authors can't read their work; we are introverts, not actors, and we bury our nose in our books and mumble desperately through to the end of the excruciating hour. If the audience wasn't so polite, it would have left in droves. In my experience, getting readers out to a FREE reading event is like pulling teeth. If they had to fork out money for a ticket, the hall would be empty!

But today, I want to share a cool new vision. Fusion is all the rage these days. In cooking, in arts, in architecture. This vision is about the fusion of music and storytelling. I know it's been done before, in operas, musicals, and even in poetry. But the town of St. Thomas has for several years experimented with the interesting combination of jazz music and author readings. A specific author and book are chosen and the musical director organizes a series of pieces to complement the story and to intersperse with the readings. Part performance, part reading. Hopefully pure entertainment!

Tonight, Wednesday, I have the privilege of being the author at the centre of the event. Thanks to Ric Giorgi and his talented musical crew, I will be learning firsthand about the power of this fusion. I have picked out five medium-length readings of 5 - 9 minutes each, and Ric has paired musical interludes with each. By all accounts these events have been very successful in the past, necessitating a move to a larger venue. I'm very interested to hear Ric's treatment of THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS and to see the audience reaction to the story as told with music. It's so much more exciting that simply "author reads book".

For anyone interested in attending, the event is at 7:30 at the Princess Avenue Theatre in St. Thomas. We'd love to see you! And stay tuned. In my next blog I will tell you how it all went. Hopefully well!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Undeniable proof that the pen is mightier than the sword!

While I was down south in the NYC area in August, visiting family and rehearsing with my brothers’ (and friends) band, my son Jan was taking care of the old homestead in our absence. He left a small present on my computer desk and it dovetails in perfectly with my Type M post of last week.

So here it is – undeniable proof that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword*. Believe me this thing is going stay right where I can look at it as I write. Thanks muchly, Jan!

*All this is a cheap dodge to get a post in when I have absolutely no time to write one this week. I have several graphics jobs on the go, and even though Roses for a Diva was completed this past Saturday, it’s far from done. I’m now in the middle of making the story cohesive – and believe me, that’s an understatement, since I changed the plot at the midpoint and didn’t take the time necessary to go back to the beginning in order to fix all the loose ends I’d just created.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Reading On The Road

Meaning, what one might read on the road, not the famous Kerouac opus from back in the day. Which, btw, I have never managed to read. Which admission says more about me than about Kerouac, I think.

We are in Paris now - having spent our first week in Marseilles and Avignon - in a small 6th floor apartment at 115 Rue Monge, in the Latin Quarter. We are not far from Rue Mouffetard, where Hemingway used to hang his hat; way back in the day. The apartment is accessed by one of those narrow spiral staircases that seem to exist nowhere else but in Paris; or by a tiny elevator, barely large enough for two small people - which is what we are.

Down below us, at street level, is a Moroccan restaurant, Founti Agadir, where last night, our first in Paris, we overdosed on lamb, couscous, and Moroccan red wine. And then spent an understandably restless evening. While we believe in moderation in all things, including (as Oscar Wilde once said) moderation itself, that notion kind of got away from us last night. It was too much of a very good thing.

I had hoped that the trip to exotic locales would inspire me to write, but that hasn't happened. Except for a cluster of short emails to friends and family, letting them know where we are, and that we are well. For the first few days I also did not read very much. I brought two books with me. One is a history of postwar Germany, which is laden with useful facts that I am trying to work into the fourth Stride novel. It has so far been unopened.

The second book in my carry-on is a collection of short stories by one of my favourite writers, William Trevor. I am partial to short stories. My other favourite short-story writer is the late John Updike, and there was a time, not so long ago, when I would have said he was my favourite. But tastes in reading are prone to shift, if not actually change. Lately, William Trevor has moved to the top of a short list. The collection of stories I brought with me - After Rain - dates from 1996. There are twelve stories altogether, all of them brilliant. Trevor has the ability, rare enough, to encompass complete lives in amazing detail and with a great economy of words.

Trevor is 85 now, and has enjoyed great success as a writer. He has won the Whitbread Prize three times, and was nominated five times for the Booker Prize. He has been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize. Although he is, as he says, "Irish in every vein", he was knighted in 2002 by Queen Elizabeth for "services to literature".

Although not a "crime writer" or "mystery writer", two of the stories in the collection noted above would easily qualify as superior crime fiction, a judgement based mostly on Trevor's insights into the characters he portrays.

A Bit of Business is the story of two young hoodlums, Mangan and Gallagher. Gallagher, the lesser of the two - "a pock-marked, sallow youth" - is known as "Lout" - "the sobriquet an expression of scorn on the part of a Christian Brother ten or so years earlier". The setting is an unnamed city in Ireland. The two engage in a series of break-ins, coinciding with the Pope's visit to the city. They know that many of the homes will be empty, the mostly Catholic families taking the opportunity to see the Pope in person. In the last home they invade, they are surprised to find an elderly man, a Protestant friend of the Catholic family, is housesitting. They overpower the old man, tie him to a chair, gag him and blindfold him.

In the aftermath of the robbery, each of the youths wishes he'd had the nerve to kill the old man, to make certain that he would never be able to identify them. Mangan revisits the moment that he wrapped a necktie around the old man's neck and pulled it tight, and knows that he only had to hold it like that for a minute longer and the old man would be dead. But he couldn't do it. Gallagher, who discovered the old man in the family room watching the Pope on TV, regrets that he didn't smash his head in. Both are humbled and angered  by what they consider to be a personal failure.

The day was over; there was nowhere left to hide from the error that had been made ... Privately, each calculated how long it would be before the danger they'd left behind in the house caught up with them ... The two youths walked the way they'd come that morning, both of them wondering if the nerve to kill was something you acquired.

Gilbert's Mother is the chilling story of a divorced woman, Rosalie, who lives with her only child, her son, a young man now twenty-five, named Gilbert. Gilbert has been "different" almost from birth:

When Gilbert was two there had been an intensity in his gaze that Rosalie considered strange. Staring at the leg of a chair or at his own foot, he managed not to blink for minutes on end. He made no sound, and it was this she found unnerving.

Gilbert's life is troubled and complicated from the age of nine, when he first underwent psychiatric evaluation. He has problems at school. He runs away from home, and more than once. His bizarre behaviour, and his mother's inability to acknowledge it, or deal with it, brings her marriage to an end. After her husband leaves, she arranges her life to accommodate Gilbert and his strange behaviours.

The story opens with the murder of a young woman on her way home from an evening spent watching television with a girlfriend. Rosalie knows in her heart that Gilbert killed the young woman. She does not doubt it at all. The night after the murder, she knows that she should call the police, but her maternal instinct, her bizarre devotion to her monstrous son, prevents her doing that:

She might dial 999 now. Or she might go tomorrow to a police station, apologizing even before she began, hoping for reassurance. But even as these thoughts occurred she knew they were pretence. Before his birth she had possessed him. She had felt the tug of his lips on her breast, a helpless creature then, growing into the one who controlled her now, who made her isolation total. Her fear made him a person, enriching him with power ... She did not want to sleep because sleeping meant waking up and there would be the moment when reality began to haunt again. Her role was only to accept: he had a screw loose, she had willed him to be born. No one would ever understand the mystery of his existence, or the unshed tears they shared.

Two brilliant crime stories by a master of prose who would likely never claim to be a crime-writer. But who can match the very best of those writers who do make that claim.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Guest Blogger: Michele Drier

John here. I’d like to introduce this week’s guest blogger, Michele Drier. Michele was born in Santa Cruz and is a fifth generation Californian. She’s lived and worked all over the state, calling both Southern and Northern California home. During her career in journalism – as a reporter and editor at daily newspapers – she won awards for producing investigative series. Her mystery Edited for Death, called “Riveting and much recommended” by the Midwest Book Review, is available at Amazon. The second in the Amy Hobbes Newspaper mysteries, Labeled for Death, was published in July 2013. Her paranormal romance series, SNAP: The Kandesky Vampire Chronicles, is available in e-book, paperback and audible formats at Amazon. All have received “must read” reviews from the Paranormal Romance Guild. SNAP: The World Unfolds, SNAP: New Talent, Plague: A Love Story and Danube: A Tale of Murder are available singly and in a boxed set at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. The fifth book, SNAP: Love for Blood rated 5 stars, is now out. She’s writing SNAP: Happily Ever After? for release in fall 2013 and a seventh book in winter 2013. To learn more about Michele, visit her website:

Old friends

I was shocked last week when I heard about the death of a high school acquaintance.

It’s not unusual to read about the death of someone you once knew, but it brings home the fact that you’ll never have a conversation with that person again. I’ve lost several friends and relatives over the years, including my mother, my grandmother and an adored uncle. These people are part of me, literally, and I talk to them daily in my thoughts.

Others visit occasionally, memories of them jogged by an event, a turn of phrase, a certain place. When I read about Treva’s death, I remembered John Ross. These were two people who crossed my life at very different times, in very different circumstances. Treva brought back my teens — a few years of angst tucked back in my memory banks. But John brought back my struggles as a poor, single mother and my need to write.

I met John in Humboldt County, in far northern California. He was a poet, a writer, a sometime journalist and one of the most intense people I’ve ever known. We were both part of a group trying to get an alternative newspaper started with no money but a lot of liberal zeal.

Over the next seven years, we were close. John was an old leftie from the Beat years, born to noted parents in New York. He was proud of the fact that his birth was announced in Walter Winchell’s column and by eighteen, he was reading his poetry in Greenwich Village bars, accompanied by bass player Charles Mingus.

He always joked that his formal education consisted of two boxes of books “liberated” from the New York Public Library that he took with him for an extended stay in an indigenous community in the Michoacan state of Mexico. They must have been celebrated books, because he was well-read. We shared a passion for e.e.cummings and John pushed me to write poetry, which I did, badly. He used to call me his “Secret Wife” though I was never sure why.

He was forever broke, living on disability and occasional odd jobs he picked up, including a stint planting and harvesting lilies at a commercial nursery. Today, he’d probably be called “occasional homeless”, primarily living in the back bedrooms and on couches of various women.

He called one night, on the verge of hysteria. He’d been renting an apartment, but was being evicted for non-payment of rent, he’d washed all of his identification in the pocket of a pair of jeans and was having free-floating anxiety. I loaded my daughter in the car and went to cook him dinner.

As I cooked, he raged around the tiny kitchen, ranting that the “capitalist landlord” was unfair. All he, John, needed was a quiet place where he could write, without all the other worries and burdens of life.

I moved from Humboldt County to Southern California, John moved to San Francisco, and I’d hear about him every so often. When I went back into journalism, he’d pop up in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle every once in a while. One time was in 2005 when his book, Murdered by Capitalism: 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left was reviewed. Thomas Pynchon wrote a blurb and the book won the Upton Sinclair Award.

This came ten years after he received the American Book Award for his reportorial work Rebellion for the Roots: Zapatista Uprising in Chiapas.

Another time was May 12, 2009 when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors declared it John Ross Day.

I don’t know how he found the quiet space and peace in his soul to write. I’d like to think he’d be proud of me for finally coming to the life of a writer. And now I fully understand his meltdown that dark night.

I’m still looking for that quiet place to just write.

John died of cancer January 17, 2011 in Lake Patzcuaro, Mexico. Every so often I reread his letters to his Secret Wife.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Starts and Stops

John here.

As some might have noticed, I missed my post this past week. Accept my apologies. My absence, in part, supports this week's column.

As I've mentioned before, two weeks ago, I started a new job, chairing the English department at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Mount Hermon, Mass. It's an exciting step in my "career life," and I'm enjoying it. But I've been busy. The department is large (17 members), and I'm charged with bringing new pedagogical ideas to the table and made a speech before 800 my first week on the job.

But there are changes, too, in my "writing life." I have a three-book contract that I'm over the moon about. Bitter Crossing, the first book in a series about a single mother and border patrol agent, will be published this spring. And the deadline for the sequel is May 1. I try to be relentless about rising early to write before work, but, admittedly, I have missed several days this month, and I'm finding it difficult to maintain (and relocate) the novel's narrative flow.

Stephen King says, in On Writing, you should never take longer than three months to finish a book. For me, chairing, teaching, living in a dorm with 45 teenage girls (and raising three of my own) – and writing – it takes nine months to a year to finish a novel. So starts and stops occur.

I'm 125 pages in, but I've found myself starting at page one to re-read the whole thing again to find the narrative flow – three times and counting. It's not a fun way to work. (As a dyslexic, this process includes listening to everything using the text-to-speech option.) I'd much rather use the Hemingway trick of stopping mid-sentence each morning, rising the next day and simply boarding the train again. But when you miss a couple consecutive days, it becomes extremely difficult to pick up where you left off. At least that's how it is for me.

If anyone has suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Importance of Conflict

Like many of my peers, I seem to write in fits and spurts. Some scenes and chapters flow easily in a matter of hours. Others, I seem to spend—literally—days noodling with a mere one hundred words  … which was the case recently when I got so close to deleting the whole darn manuscript. Yes–it was that frustrating!

Fortunately, help was at hand in the guise of one of my favorite craft guru's—sadly long-gone from this world—Sol Saks. Primarily a comedy writer, Sol is best remembered as being the creator of "Bewitched."

This is what he says, “When a scene isn’t working, when the writing isn’t coming and the words don’t flow, blame yourself last. Step back and examine it. It is usually because you don’t have the proper ingredients, and almost always the missing ingredient is conflict.”

And in my case, how right he was! The moment I identified the problem and threw in some conflict, those one hundred words stretched into five hundred and that scene worked—in fact, it sparked a plot twist.

Conflict is what makes life interesting. Without conflict, there is no real story. Stories are about experiencing emotions and conflicts raise questions and raise the stakes—especially in crime fiction.

Why are sitcoms and daytime dramas so popular? I can tell you why … most of the scenes focus on an argument of some kind! 

I work "remotely" from my new home in Portland, now. You’d think I’d be happy being alone, picking my "paid work" hours and writing whenever I felt like it. But I'm not. I miss the drama of the crazy advertising environment I inhabited for fifteen years in Los Angeles. I miss the eccentric characters that make the shenanigans in Don Draper's world of Mad Men seem tame by comparison. Although that job was stressful, it made my days interesting because I'm a writer and the environment was filled with conflict and drama (rarely my own, luckily!)

So how do we incorporate conflict in our writing?
Don’t take it easy on your characters. Your main character should face a variety of conflicts that prevent him or her getting what they want.
Make them suffer and bleed! Make your characters disagree with each other. If you are stuck, pick two characters and throw in a volatile question—even one unrelated to the book you are writing—and watch them fight it out. See how they handle it. Always ask, “What is the worst possible thing that could happen to this character?"

In childhood we’re often told that we must get along with everyone and make nice. Try getting in touch with your own anger and issues and allow your characters to be your spokespersons.
Conflict comes in many shapes and sizes. Here are my top six.
  1. Character vs self  (Internal): “He was immobilized by conflict and indecision.”
  2. Character vs character: “A conflict of loyalties” or “a conflict of interest made him ineligible for the post”
  3. Character vs society (Conflicts in the world of your character)
  4. Character vs. Nature (Twister, Inferno, Earthquake)
  5. Character vs Machine/Technology (Computer dysfunctions, car trouble)
  6. Character vs. Destiny or Fate

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Old Technology

If you’ve hung around Type M for awhile, you might know that I am a big fan of fountain pens. I have eight of them in my “collection”. The reason collection is in quotes is that I know people who have hundreds of them. I’m not really a collector, I’m a user. Several of my pens have had their nibs customized, i.e. ground, so they are optimized for the rather strange way I hold a writing implement. You see, I’m left-handed and we southpaws have difficulties writing from left to write, so a nib tip that’s been angled just the right way is a real benefit.

Okay, that’s the introduction to this post. What follows is the meat and potatoes.

Again, if you read my weekly scribblings, you know I’m trying to finish my 10th novel, Roses for a Diva. It’s now two weeks overdue, and still not quite ready for prime time. Writing this one has been a real struggle. Part of the issue is, as I progress as a writer, I’m more finicky about what I put down in the first rush of creation. I used to just vomit it all out, then use multiple revision passes to sort out the crap from what I actually want to say. No more. Now, I like to be more thoughtful and precise in what I put down, and and the result is that I work more slowly. Couple that with the need to make money – since who gets a working wage from any publisher these days? – and you have a good recipe for delays. I have never missed a publishing deadline until this current novel and I’m deeply embarrassed by having to do something so amateur. As far as I’m concerned, deadlines are carved in stone.

My current fractured writing schedule has made it even more difficult to get any words down, and I obviously needed to reexamine how I’m working to maximize what I’m able to accomplish in the time I am able to put aside for finishing the novel. Since our house is rather small and my wife teaches flute around 30 hours a week, I also have that distraction to deal with. The only way to deal with it is to get out of the house.

Since working more slowly and carefully is now part of my writing regime, what better way to proceed than to grab a journal, a favourite fountain pen (currently it’s a Pelikan Souverän M800 with its Richard Binder custom-ground italic nib and filled with green ink for any other fountain pen aficionados out there) and get the hell out of Dodge for a few hours. With nice weather I can go out into our backyard, a nearby park, or a library when it’s rotten. The distractions are fewer and the results are better.

Yes, I could go out with a ball point pen or even a pencil, but I prefer the sensory experience of writing using my bit of old technology. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the feel of a nib floating along on excellent paper, but I’m finding that the prose of my first-draft sections of the novel written this way are far better than work done directly into the computer. Also, one day last week, my pen ran out of ink unexpectedly, so I borrowed a ball point to continue (I was in a park), and wouldn’t you know it, things in Novel-land started falling apart immediately. Maybe it was the distraction of having to borrow a pen from someone I had never met (an odd thing to do) or maybe the muse left with the last of my lovely green ink. The result was I threw out nearly everything I wrote with that cheap ball point.

Computers are a lovely thing, as is much new technology, but for millennia, writers used paper and some sort of writing implement. I’m not saying we should go back to clay tablets and a stylus or even quill and ink, but maybe, just maybe, using a little older technology here and there can sharpen our brains by slowing us down, helping to make us more thoughtful. The end result – in my case, at least – can be better prose and superior storytelling.

How about you? Do you ever write longhand anymore? Use a typewriter? (I wish I’d never thrown mine out.) Or does new technology (computers or voice-to-text transcription) work best for you? Am I completely full of shit with the way I view this? Does active use of old technology even belong in our modern world?

As for the artistic side of using a fountain pen, this video is a wonderful example of what you can do with a pen fitted with a very flexible nib and some practice…

Monday, September 16, 2013

That first book

Do you remember what the very first book you ever bought with your own money was? A recent article in the Times newspaper asked a number of well-known people that question and they all remembered, usually with great vividness, what it was and indeed where it had been bought.

I remember mine. I was aged about seven, I suppose. We didn't have a television at home but I had seen what I suppose was the first TV serial version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden at a friend's house and I was entranced by it. I think it must have been very well done since I can still remember it so clearly and I have quite determinedly never watched another version since.  When it came to an end I was heart-broken.

Some time later I was in a bookshop with an indulgent aunt and uncle who gave me money to buy a book for myself – a new experience, since though I had lots of books at home they had all been given to me. I went round the bookshop as if it was a candy store, wondering what to choose. Then I saw it – a book called The Secret Garden!  I couldn't believe it: the wonderful story that I had so loved was there in a book, that I could read again and again as often as I liked – the gift that keeps on giving. I still have that book, a Children's Penguin, the cover a bit tatty now, and I still read it from time to time.

The cross Anglo-Indian Mary, poor miserable Colin, Martha and Dickon and their mother Mrs Sowerby, all full of robust good sense – they seem as real as people in my mind. The books I love as an adult too are the ones where the characters make me believe that they have a life off the page.

I feel that about the characters I create too. When I start a new book in the DI Marjory Fleming series I have the curious sense that while I have been away their lives are still going on; it's like going back to a place you know and saying, 'Well. what's been happening?'

I've never been sure in my own mind whether I chose The Secret Garden because good characterization naturally appealed me or whether it was reading The Secret Garden at a very formative age that has made character so important to me in my writing.

One of the people asked about his first book in that article had chosen a book of puzzles and riddles. He was an economist; did it, perhaps, instill in him an enjoyment of challenge that led him into spending his life working on the riddle to which no one has yet found an answer?

So which came first – the chicken or the egg?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Collaboration is the way to go... at least for us!

I am thrilled to introduce this weekend's guest blogger, South African author Michael Stanley, who writes the fascinating and compelling Detective Kubu series. Michael Stanley is actually two terrific and personable guys, Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, close friends who embarked on a crime writing career together. Below is their story... 

During the 1980s, Stanley would rent a small airplane in Johannesburg and fill it with friends, wine, and food – in that order.  One of the friends who had a standing reservation on Stan Air, as the excursions were called, was Michael. After take-off, we would head for Zimbabwe or Botswana to view and photograph wildlife and birds.  And to savor South African wines in the middle of the African bush around a hardwood camp fire. 

In the early evening on one trip to the Savuti plains of the stunning Chobe National Park in Botswana, we witnessed lions stalking and killing a wildebeest.  Right behind the lions was a pack of hyenas, harassing them to get to the carcass.  Sometimes one hyena would nip a lion’s tail.  While the lion angrily turned on it, another hyena would dart in and steal some of the flesh.  This was typical scavenger behavior by the hyenas. Another time we saw a pack of hyenas hunting a wildebeest – not scavengers now, but ferocious hunters.  By morning there was nothing left except the horns of the late wildebeest.  The hyenas had finished everything, bones and all. 

That night, over a glass or two of the wine mentioned above, we decided that if we were ever to commit a murder, the best way to get rid of the body would be to leave it for the hyenas.  No body, no case.  And that suggested an intriguing premise for a mystery novel. The idea languished until 2003, when the newly retired Stanley suggested to the still working Michael that they should do something more about this idea than just think about it. A month later, Stanley received a draft of the first chapter of a mystery novel from Michael.  In it their perfect murder became imperfect as a game ranger and a professor of ecology stumbled upon a corpse, just before a hyena finished devouring it. So there was a body, and there was a case. 

The professor appeared in chapter 1 because we had been told that one should always write about what one knows.  We were both were professors, so the main character was going to be a professor.
Stanley liked the chapter and asked Michael what happened next.  Michael didn’t know.  But it was obvious that the police needed to be involved, so in the next chapter Assistant Superintendent David Bengu climbed into his Land Rover in Gaborone and set off into the arid Kalahari desert.  As he ate copious quantities of sandwiches and lustily sang his favorite opera arias, he reminisced about how he became a detective, how his curiosity had been piqued by a Bushman friend who had taken him into the desert and shown him a world he couldn’t see.  After this experience he had decided to become a detective, to see what others didn’t. 

Our policeman’s nickname was “Kubu” – which means hippopotamus in the local language, Setswana.  It describes his size, shape and something of his temperament.  And by the time he arrived where the body had been found, he had had taken over as the protagonist of what was to become a series of police procedurals set in Botswana.  And we had just learned an important lesson.  It is not always the author who dictates what happens – the characters sometimes take over too.

Our first book, A CARRION DEATH, took us three years to complete.  Of course, since this was our first foray into writing fiction, it wasn’t surprising that we had an enormous amount to learn.  One of the things we learned was that the book wasn’t about hyenas or the perfect murder, but rather about why a murderer would want a body to completely vanish and never be identified.  That led us to develop a story around blood diamonds and the exploitation of resources.
Another thing we learned was that it’s unusual for two people to write fiction together.  But as we learned more, we discovered that there are several very successful writing teams in the genre – Nicki French (husband and wife), PJ Tracy (mother and daughter), Charles Todd (mother and son) just to name a few.  Indeed, it’s becoming sufficiently common that some teams even use both their names rather than hiding behind a pseudonym; for example, the Swedish partnership of Roslund and Hellstrom, whose thrillers are best-selling prize winners. Both of us have been university professors and both of us have enjoyed collaborating in our academic lives.  Stanley has co-authored non-fiction books; Michael has written many academic papers with other researchers.  So it seemed natural to us to work together on a project writing fiction.  And we enjoyed finding out how to do that.

Sometimes writers (and readers) ask us how we can share this creative art with another person, how we can write fiction together.  We think this is the wrong question!  A better question is how can someone write alone.  We have the benefit of having an involved person to brainstorm with, to bounce ideas off, and to give truly critical feedback.  A single writer has only himself or herself to interact with.  How depressing!  How lonely!  We also have the benefit of having someone to share a glass of wine with while discussing the intricacies of plot or character – a solo writer can’t do that, because no one else will be totally involved.

We both do everything.  We brainstorm together, follow up on research, travel to little known parts of Botswana, and write.  Our process is that one of us does the first draft of a piece, sends it by email to the other, and receives a response which is often a highly commented and edited version.  The originator responds, then back and forth in that way, as many as twenty times or even more.  Eventually the piece is not written by Michael or by Stanley, but rather by some gestalt, called Michael Stanley, who sits somewhere between Minneapolis and Johannesburg in cyberspace.  Readers tell us the product is seamless; our friends tell us they can identify who wrote what, but they are wrong about half the time!

We believe there are many benefits to collaboration.  We can brainstorm plot and character, and we think we get a more cohesive final product as a result.  When one of us flags, the other is there to nag and take up the slack.  Best of all we get immediate and interested feedback on anything we write.  But there are some caveats.  One must be willing to take harsh criticism, knowing that it’s directed at the product rather than the person and that the only aim is to improve the work.  There must be trust and an ability to see the other person’s point of view.  It helps if you have similar writing styles.  And it probably takes longer than writing alone.  But all that is outweighed by the biggest advantage: it is great fun!  And, after all, almost all people who write do it for the enjoyment.

In the later books, Kubu has moved around.  Convenient access to hyenas was the original motivation for setting our books in Botswana, but we’ve found it refreshing to be outside South Africa and to be able to address southern African issues which are not related to the legacy of apartheid.  Our second book explores the impact of the Rhodesian bush war on the people of the region.  The main character dies in the first chapter, and Kubu has to piece his life together retrospectively.  The man is supposed to have died many years before in then Rhodesia, leading to the title – THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU.  Our third book had the plight of the Bushman or San people of the Kalahari as the back story. We were stunned when DEATH OF THE MANTIS won the Barry Award for the best paperback original mystery of 2011 and was short-listed for an Edgar. Our latest book, DEADLY HARVEST, is the darkest of the four with the use of human body parts in black magic by witchdoctors as the theme. Regrettably this practice, far from dying out, seems to be becoming more common – or at least better known.

We believe these books would never have seen the light of day without the collaborative style we’ve developed. And we’ve remained good friends! For us, collaboration definitely is the way to write mystery fiction.

Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, both South Africans by birth. Both have been professors who have worked in academia and business, Sears in South Africa and Trollip in the USA. Their love of watching the wildlife of the subcontinent has taken them on a number of flying safaris to Botswana and Zimbabwe.  The idea for their debut novel – A CARRION DEATH – arose on one of those trips.
The novels are set in Botswana and feature the large and shrewd Assistant Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu of the Gaborone Criminal Investigation Department.  The second novel in the series is THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU.  The third, DEATH OF THE MANTIS, was shortlisted for an Edgar and won the Barry Award for best paperback original mystery of 2011.  Their latest book, where Detective Kubu takes on an “invisible” witch doctor, is DEADLY HARVEST.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Of Party, First Draft, and Stress

I had hoped to have a brilliant post for you today. I hope that every other Friday when it's my turn. But I wanted to examine writing habits today. I had the seed of a good idea. Two things got between me and my brilliant post. First, I'm about 75 pages from the end of my first draft of the second book in my new series. I'm writing fast because the end is in sight, but I'm a little concerned because a lot of things are suddenly happening in the last 75 pages. That should be a good thing, but it's disconcerting because my police procedural is pulling me along as if it wants to morph into a police procedural/thriller. Isn't it more than enough that the book is set in 2020?

The other thing that got between me and my brilliant post is that I'm giving a party tomorrow, and other than ordering the cake and other desserts, I haven't done too much -- or, maybe I mean that although I really excited about this book launch party, I haven't gotten my head to the "relax and have fun" place yet. The Red Queen Dies was officially available on September 10. But, of course, the physical book has been printed since sometime in August. A bookseller at Killer Nashville was able to get pre-publication copies. And, for the past month, I've been on a virtual book tour that has been both wonderful and a little scary -- getting another review of your book every few days, doing a guest post or interview, or being featured on a host website is a wonderful way to get the word out there you have a new book. But there is no guarantee that a host who reviews your book will love it. I've been lucky in that I've gotten good reviews, and even the reviewers who had quibbles had thoughtful comments and ended on positive notes.

Then, of course, there have been the reviews from the traditional sources that determine whether your book will find its way into libraries and bookstores. Waiting for those was nerve-wracking -- would they review and if they did, what would they say -- got reviews from PW, Booklist, RT, Library Journal. Got one from Kirkus, too, that I'm still afraid to read.

But the reason I'm having such a hard time getting into the proper party mood for my launch party tomorrow afternoon -- at The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, an independent that often plays host to visiting mystery writers -- is that too much is happening at once. I have never had this experience of having a book come out with a large publisher. The books in my Lizzie Stuart series are published by a lovely small independent press that specializes in books with Southern themes/settings and that tried a mystery imprint, but gave it up. The last two books in the series have come out when I was done writing and they had a slot in their publishing schedule. And both I and they hoped that readers would notice the book had come out. I have readers who love the series and wait for new books. I've even gotten reviewed by the traditional sources with books 1, 2, and 4 (my big success). But this is a different experience -- especially  because I've written a book set in an alternate reality, near-future version of the city where I live (Albany, New York). I've even put the place where I work (UAlbany) in the book.

So you see before you, a writer who is both happy and stressed. And who, when it comes to giving a party, has a lot in common with Mary on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show (baby boomers will get that reference). Thank goodness the party isn't at my house. I've ordered the Alice in Wonderland themed cake -- scheduled for delivery at the bookstore. But I haven't done anything yet about fruit and cheese platters or beverages. I did remember to order the Alice-themed tea party plates and napkins. But I haven't made the cute little "Drink Me" labels to go on the wine bottles.

On the other hand, I won't have to read from the book. I have four wonderful volunteers from our local Sisters in Crime chapter who are going to read two scenes from the book from scripts. All I have to do is the set-up for each reading.

Now, if only people actually come and have fun. Now, if only I can get those last 75 pages of the new book done. Now, if only I'm recovered from the party and finishing the new book in time to enjoy Bouchercon next week.

And, please forgive me for appearing to complain about a stressful situation that many writers would love to have. But I was awaken this morning by my telephone ringing. Not cell phone, land line. It seems there's a problem with the line. The phone rings, goes dead, rings again. The problem is outside they tell me, and the tech will be here to fix it tomorrow. Meanwhile, they're re-directing my calls to another line. But today is Friday, the 13th. I'm sure glad my party is tomorrow. But this could mean that the supermarket will be out of fruit and cheese platters or that I've missed the 24 hour in advance deadline for ordering. . .

Will really try for a brilliant post next time.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Muses to the Rescue

I am putting the final touches on the manuscript of my seventh Alafair Tucker mystery. This has been a b***ch of a book to write. For a long time I wasn't sure I was going to be able to pull it off. And yet miraculously it seems to have all worked out. My first reader is looking it over now, so we shall see how successfully I managed. I go through this every single time. I'm never sure I can do it, yet somehow I do.

If I have learned anything after all this time, it is that the process I undergo to finish every book is unique, even if it’s the nth in a series and is populated with characters you know like the back of your hand. Each book requires something different from you. Some flow out, some are dragged out screaming. Some take more research than others. You always have to respect your reader’s intelligence. Avid mystery readers are often more savvy about how mystery plots are routinely constructed than the writer is, so you’ve really got to be imaginative and on your toes to fool them. And fool them in a logical way. And how you as the author manage to get that done that for each book is totally different from all the others you've written. I don't know why.

Now, like many working authors, I occasionally present workshops and classes on how to develop character, construct a mystery, how to plot and how to add suspense to a novel. I have a system all worked out, and it's neat and tidy and easy to understand. The only problem is that I seldom follow my own advice.

I tell my classes that I generally write the first draft from beginning to end, skipping over the places where I find myself stuck so that I can just get it down. That's the dream, anyway. The reality is that I've been known to make books like I make quilts, out of patchwork pieces that I sew together and hope in the end I have a pattern. And when it comes to the "skipping over" part, I have to admit that I have been known to spend day after unproductive day picking at some plot problem as though I'm trying to unravel the Gordian knot with a straight pin.

I advise the writers in my seminars that "writing is rewriting", which I believe to my bones. And yet it is not unknown for me to polish a section of story for a week before moving on.

Write every day without fail, I say. Skipping even a day makes it difficult to pick up where you left off. Excellent advice. If only life never intruded. Or if only I weren't such an undisciplined slob.

The only thing I can always count on when I write a book is that whether I deserve it or not, the Muses always come to my rescue and I end up with a finished mystery novel that hangs together in an interesting and logical way. I don't know how.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My personal story of Internet woes, part deux

(Before you get into this post, you’ll need to read the one I posted last week.)

So I waited for a weekend with emails disappearing left, right and centre (if that can actually happen in cyberspace). My clients were not able to get through properly, and now my actual ISP address had stopped functioning. The “black hole effect” seemed to spreading. Since I have a business whose communications are nearly all through the Internet, this was getting serious.

On Monday, I called “Technician TS”, my own personal Deep Throat into the back room workings of a large Internet Service Provider. I explained that things were getting worse rather than better.

At this point, I could have just packed up, gone to another company and gotten sort of “un-black holed” but I really needed the thing straightened out and at least I was now getting some sort of action. This far in, I wasn’t about to give up.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“They let me speak directly to a tech at Microsoft. I’m amazed. And here’s what I found out: they’re going to have a meeting about your problem.”


“Sometime this week. I told them you needed this resolved ASAP. He said he’d do what he could. Hang in there, Rick. I have a feeling we’re getting close.”

I girded my loins (I found the info on how to do that on the Internet, by the way.) and waited two more days. Then, turning on my computer’s mail program on the third morning, I was suddenly inundated with emails downloading. I felt like Harry Potter when his uncle’s house is flooded by letters of acceptance to Hogwarts. Hundreds of the darn things came in. Most of them were for Viagra, but I didn’t care. I was getting all that had been denied to me for days beyond reckoning.

I called my tech savior. “I was just about to call you, Rick. They said there’s nothing wrong at their end. They didn’t do anything. If there is a problem with you getting emails, then it’s someone else that’s causing it. Sorry.”

“That’s curious because I just got 892 emails this morning, some of them going right back to the date of the problem starting.”

“Really? Could you send me a couple of them? I want to look at the headers and see what the routing was. I’m really curious to see what’s going on.”

I waited for ten minutes, downing three stiff Scotches before he called back (Mind you, it was 10 a.m.). “There’s now a route through the MS servers in all 4 emails you sent. Please don’t quote me on this, but I’m positive MS was the problem. You’ll have to be satisfied with that because I know for sure they won’t admit it. It would be bad for business.”

So there you have it. My problems were not caused by me. I was lied to by my ISP and they were lied to by Microsoft. Remember that old saw “the customer is always right”? Well, that isn’t the case anymore. It’s now “the corporation is always right”.

My only real solution to prevent this from happening again is to change my website address. That ain’t gonna happen. Too much of my identity as an author is tied up in it. But my tale of woe should be a cautionary one to every author out there who has a personalized website: be careful who is using its addresses and for what. Take steps to protect those (there are HTML solutions) as well as pre-emptive actions whenever you can take them. I didn’t, but then, I got lucky. I found a knowledgeable tech who was willing to help me. It happened by accident, or I might still be languishing in Internet Hell, alone, uncontactable, crying in the cyber-darkness.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Derivative Miscellany

This, as it happens, is our countdown week for a trip to France. I am already feeling the stirrings of mild panic. We leave on Saturday evening from Trudeau International Airport in Montreal on an Air Transat flight that will deposit us in Marseilles at 1140 local time Sunday September 15th. One of those dreadful try-and-get-a-few-hours-sleep in a tiny airline seat at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. Been there, done that, as the trite saying has it. And more than once. One wishes for the development of the fabulous Star Trek gismo that has one saying something like "Beam me over there, Scottie!" And have the croissant and piping hot café-au-lait waiting for us on arrival. Please?

Well, that won't happen. We will however hope to be conscious, and even sentient, upon arrival, able to navigate ourselves and our overstuffed suitcases to our hotel. And then able to explore the old city of Marseilles during the afternoon - an on-and-off bus tour of the city is one possibility - before settling down, sevenish, for a sumptuous dinner of Mediterranean seafood and a crisp cold bottle of white wine. And then, hopefully, a good night's sleep. On that part of the wish list, I will see my friendly MD on Wednesday and request a prescription for mild sleeping pills to ease my way through the otherwise sleepless night in the aforementioned tiny aircraft seat. They do help, these little chemical wonders. The trick, of course, to be able to titrate the dose and wake up and face the new day on the other side of the Atlantic, sans fuzziness of brain.

One item we will be bringing with us is the original Word version of Mary Lou Longworth's guest blog entry on the New/Old Marseilles, from June 15th this year:

It was very clever of me to arrange that, I think, although the original motivation for the guest blog was a positive review of Mary Lou's most recent mystery novel in the Times by Marilyn Stasio. In any event, we will have in hand a detailed guide to Marseilles.

As an aside to that part of our trip, at brunch yesterday, my daughter Kristina asked why we had decided to start our trip in Marseilles, rather than Paris. My response? That this was the place where Jason Bourne (aka Matt Damon) came ashore, lost in an amnesic fog, from his near-death experience at the hands of an African despot in the Mediterranean, before being rescued by a French fishing boat. One of my fave films, by the way.

Yes, that was the original motivation, odd though it may seem. But I already knew, of course, that there would be a lot of interesting things to see in Marseilles. (Think also about The French Connection, with Gene Hackman, which also starts in Marseilles. So much of my life is governed by films.) And additional research has proven this to be true.

In preparation for the trip - to perform a riff on several recent Type M posts on the horrors of rapidly-advancing technology - I took myself out last Tuesday to purchase a new notebook to take on the trip. The one I settled on was a Hewlett Packard 2000. It was the cheapest one available at my local Best Buy store. I was told it was the "entry level" unit, but it seemed nonetheless to have about twice the computing power of the first Lunar Lander, and was equipped with Wi-Fi, and the latest bit of Microsoft Magic, Windows 8. And of course that proved to be almost totally incomprehensible. When I fired it up the screen was plastered with all these weird Windows 8 tiles, almost none of which did very much for me. Except inspire panic.

I emailed a very tech-savvy friend who told me he had no experience with Windows 8 and could not help me. The same with my tech-savvy daughter, the aforementioned Kristina, who also had never worked with Windows 8, but who had heard that it was really different from Windows 7, with which I was reasonably familiar. A deep gloom descended upon me. Sleep was lost. I considered chewing my fingernails, but as I have never done that, there was no relief to be found there.

Suzanne came to my rescue. Some months ago, she had clipped an article from a local paper on a small family-owned computer outfit. I emailed them and two days later a very young lad in a ball cap appeared on the doorstep. (They are all so young!) An hour later my new notebook had been whipped into shape. The dreaded and incomprehensible Windows 8 had been reconfigured to look and act like Windows 7. Peace of mind had been restored. All that remains to be done now is to purchase a wireless mouse to override the machine's touchpad, which is proving to be way too "touchy-feely" for my liking.

So, I am good to go to continue working on Stride #4 during the trip. I will also be able to post my blog from France on the 23rd. And send and receive emails.

A final bit of derivative stuff before I close. This morning, before starting this post, I read Charlotte's most recent post, Bought Off. Interesting research she has done on black history in Kansas. More or less in that context, Suzanne and I sat down last night to watch a now-classic film from 1967 - which shockingly is starting to look like semi-ancient history - In The Heat Of The Night; with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.

In a real sense, the film is a slice of black history in America. Although I have to add that it was directed by a Canadian, Norman Jewison. (As another aside, Rod Steiger won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of the Sheriff of Sparta, Mississippi, where the story takes place. A body of opinion holds that he should have gotten the same Oscar for his role in an earlier, 1964, film, The Pawnbroker; but that film was very controversial, and the controversy worked against his being chosen for the award. Instead, Lee Marvin got the Oscar for his role in Cat Ballou, a comedic western.)

I think it might be a bit of a shocker for a young person today, who has no direct memory of the 1960's, to watch this film, and see how things have changed. Similarly, I think this year's film of the Jackie Robinson story, 42, would have the same effect.

And that's where I will leave it for this outing. The next offering will emanate from France; Paris, probably.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Bought Off

It doesn't take much for someone to have me eating out of their hand. It's pathetic really, how gratefully I respond to just a little bit of praise.

In addition to writing mysteries, I do some academic writing. There's no money in it unless one hits it lucky with a fabulous book that is adopted in classrooms across the country. That kind of writing secures tenure if one is on an academic path. But I'm not. I write novels.

But I'm a really good researcher according to Dr. Quintard Taylor who praised an encyclopedia entry I turned in yesterday for It was about The Kansas Emancipation League. Finding and understanding the information was really hard work. But that's all it took, really. Just a little pat on the head from Dr. Taylor and I squared my shoulders and vowed to my best on the next entry on the list.

How can I complain? This odd bit of side research fuels my knowledge about Kansas history and often sparks an idea for a plot. My field is African Americans in Kansas and their contribution to the West.

I stumbled into this obsession through doing research for historical novels. I noticed African Americans were writing fabulous letters to Kansas newspaper editors in the 19th century. It didn't make sense to me at the time, because it was very, very hard for blacks to become literate. There were laws against slaves learning to read and write. But what made even less sense was that there was so little written about the men behind these letters.

I really want folks to know about these individuals and the impact they had on forming our state. I was honored to have a chance to contribute to BlackPast. I'm grateful that researching novels led to these discoveries, and grateful that this research strengthened my novels.

Life works like that sometimes. Things come together in strange ways. By the way, Type-M'ers, don't want you to turn green with envy but is now the world-wide go-to place for black history. It has 3.4 million readers.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Truth Will Set You Free

I’m deeply immersed in my writing at last. I’ve managed to crawl through the resistance barrier (thanks to a daily dose of Steven Pressfield’s fabulous book The War Of Art) – and now, although I am nowhere near the home stretch, I am plodding along in a comfortable state of anxiety that I have accepted is my normal writing process. Chocolate helps.

What is this post about? Well … lying, actually.

I’ve just come to a point in my story where one of my characters has to take a polygraph test. Luckily, I took copious notes from Deanne Theodore’s workshop at this year’s Love is Murder conference in Chicago

As well as being a private detective, Deanne Theodore runs a polygraph consultancy business in Illinois. She brought in her 35 lb Stoelting analog polygraph machine that she fondly refers to as “The Thing.”

Although most polygraph machines these days are digital, Deanne believes The Thing has greater accuracy because it gets a “better ink flow.” She also claims that alleged liars seem to be intimidated the moment they walk into the “polygraph suite” and see The Thing with all the wires, blood cuff and electrical pads with metal plates. The latter is able to measure the sweat through the skin on the fingers.

So what exactly is a polygraph?
It is simply an instrument that records changes in autonomic reactivity when confronting a given stimulus i.e. a question. The instrument reflects the changes in our body as it registers a flight, fight or freeze response as illustrated in the tracings. A direct spike indicates a problem. But often, it is the body that gives itself away.

Typically, truthful examinees are cooperative and follow instructions whereas deceptive examinees will attempt to engage in certain behaviors in an effort to distort the tracings. When such behaviors are identified, after a verbal warning, the test is stopped and a “Purposeful Non Cooperation (PNC) result is returned.

Can you beat the polygraph?
Sociopaths can lie because they have no feelings and they can rationalize the question but on the whole, people don’t “beat” a polygraph test. They beat the examiner conducting the test. Asking the right questions is definitely an acquired skill and Deanne has it.

She usually asks the examinee questions before the test begins. When her victim—sorry, I mean examinee–is all wired up, Deanne will slip basic questions to instill confidence in between the pertinent questions. Deanne counts fifteen seconds between each question and she mark’s the paper at the start and finish of a question with a positive or negative answer.

Deanne revealed that she could force someone to lie by asking them to lie about something that is true. During the presentation we did some role-playing and I was surprised to discover how easy it was to get hot under the collar despite being innocent. But, as Deanne insists, “We do not detect lies … we verify the truth!”

Here are a few physical signs of lying
  • The liar has difficulty swallowing.
  • He is displaying a forced smile on his face.
  • He is less expressive with his arms and tends to hold them close to his body or he could be touching different parts of his face.
  • He may have nervous habits such as ear rubbing, whistling etc.
  • The liar makes no eye contact with you or he may stare at you in a very unnatural way.
  • He is sitting hunched instead of straight.
  • There may be physiological changes. With a lie he may drink water in the middle of a question or try to clear his throat.  
Of course there are ways to beat a lie detector test. Check out the top ten right here!

So, if you are curious about whether your significant other is enjoying an extra-marital tryst or your neighbor is stealing cabbages from your garden, look no further. For a small fee of anywhere between $300 and $1,000, suggest they take a polygraph test and the truth will set you free.